How do you start an online store?
Recently, a friend of mine asked for my help in opening an online store. He and his business partners-to-be came up with an idea of product they would like to market and sell online for a specific "audience". They had a business plan, they had assigned roles and responsibilities in the future business and they researched their competition having provided me with a list of their competitors' respective websites. They even bought a domain name for their future website. All they needed was to build a website for their online business and start selling.
Choosing website technology
I thought a good start would be to inform them of their choices so they can make an informed decision about their technological platform and their investment. The abundance of existing choices can make your head spin and depending on whom you get your advice from can steer you in one direction or another. Here is my subjective advice that I gave to my good friend.
I have to say that there is no “one size fits all” solutions. First, you need to decide on one of the following three choices:
- Self-hosted static HTML site;
- Hosted e-commerce platform;
- Self-hosted e-commerce platform.
Self-hosted means that you host your website on a web server (hosting) of your own choice - whether it is your own web server computer located in your basement or a bedroom, or it is "rented" from some Hosting Provider company, e.g. Godaddy.com, or 1and1.com, or any other.
Self-hosted static HTML site
Hosted e-commerce platform
The main convenience of the hosted e-commerce platforms (solutions) is that it is a one-stop shop – you would deal just with a single company that provides you with a web server (hosting) and customizable website builder. These solutions are also highly scalable, which is a tremendous benefit that allows for your company painless growth.
Out of the multitude of hosted e-commerce platforms such as Shopify, Bigcommerce, 3dcart, Volusion, Big Cartel, etc. I would select Shopify as a preferred e-commerce solution for a new business.
It has simple, intuitive user interface that assures ease of the website maintenance. Its biggest shortcoming is somewhat limited ability to customize its checkout page. In fact, this limitation is common among all of the hosted e-commerce platforms. However, it may not be a drawback after all since most online shoppers feel more comfortable with some common checkout page rather than with some exotic checkout page design.
At the time of this writing, Shopify has three main pricing plans tailored for different stages of your online business:
- Basic Shopify ($29/month) – all the basics you need to start selling online;
- Shopify ($79/month) – everything you need to run a successful business;
- Advanced Shopify ($299/month – advanced features that help your business to sell more.
Here is Shopify How-To video:
Self-hosted e-commerce platform
Self-hosted (sometimes called "non-hosted") e-commerce platform means you have to install and customize it on your own / rented hosting.
For example, Magento is a widespread and well-established platform that is quite suitable for a mid- to large-sized business. It has abundance of various features, but its user interface is not very friendly, and using it requires high-level programming skills with the corresponding ongoing expenses. In my view, this ecommerce platform is an overkill for a new online business.
My choice for the self-hosted ecommerce platform is WooCommerce, which is actually a plugin for WordPress-based websites. Obviously, in order to use WooCommerce your website is going to be built in WordPress.
Before you can install WooCommerce, you must have the WordPress platform installed on your hosting. There is no cost to install the WooCommerce plugin, there are, however, fees associated with the integration of WooCommerce as a functional shopping cart.
As with all WordPress websites, WooCommerce is fully customizable, and has a nice shopping cart and secure payment gateway. WooCommerce has user-friendly easily managed intuitive administrative panel, however customizations of the website templates require technical knowledge and familiarity with the WordPress platform.
My second first choice for the self-hosted solution that is worth considering is OpenCart - a powerful, free and user-friendly e-commerce shopping cart system. OpenCart is an open-source shopping cart built on PHP/MySQL code. Many web-hosting providers allow for an easy one-click installation of the OpenCart software with purchasing (renting) their hosting services. With OpenCard you may choose between free templates (themes) or premium themes; it also allows for a complete theme customization, but again, as with WooCommerce, it does require technical knowledge.
Watch this short video on how easy it is to setup OpenCart store:
Another viable and prudent option is to start small using one of the established marketplaces such as Amazon Marketplace or Etsy. There you can set up your mini-store and start selling your products right away without incurring the expense of creating your own online store. You can even try selling on eBay, but keep in mind that eBay is mostly for bargain-hunters, so I would not advise selling on eBay.
This starting small approach will allow you to test the marketability of your product, and as your sales progress, gradually transition to your own website that you have full control over.
The choice is yours
Now, when you have all this information at your disposal, you need to make your choice. Consider initial and ongoing expenses, ease of maintenance, scalability, associated risks, etc. Don’t hesitate to shoot your questions or concerns, - we’ll be happy to answer or discuss them with you. And we wish you success!